Professional basketball was struggling in the early 1950s, and one look at what was taking place on the court explained why. The game was dull, all too often played at a snail’s pace with one team opening up a lead and freezing the ball until time ran out. The only thing the trailing team could do was foul, thus games became rough, ragged, free throw-shooting contests.

“That was the way the game was played — get a lead and put the ball in the icebox,” said Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics, one of the game’s best ballhandling guards. “Teams literally started sitting on the ball in the third quarter. Coaches are conservative by nature, and it didn’t make much sense to play a wide-open game. We’d get a lead, and you’d see good ol’ No. 14 doing his tricks out there.”

If not Cousy, who was “good ol’ No. 14,” then it would be one of the other premier guards of that era like Dick McGuire, Slater Martin, Bob Davies or Andy Phillip, who would dribble until they were fouled, and the parade from one free throw line to the other would begin.

“The game had become a stalling game,” Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals, said before his death in 1992. “A team would get ahead, even in the first half, and it would go into a stall. The other team would keep fouling, and it got to be a constant parade to the foul line. Boy, was it dull!”

Dull was the last thing NBA moguls wanted when the league was still in its infancy, struggling for a place on the American sports scene. But that’s what it was:

  • On November 22, 1950, the Fort Wayne Pistons edged the Minneapolis Lakers 19-18 in a game where the teams scored a total of eight baskets.

  • Three years later, 106 fouls were called and 128 free throws shot in a playoff game between Boston and Syracuse. Cousy scored 30 points from the foul line alone.

  • In 1954, Syracuse beat New York 75-69 in another playoff horror show where free throws outnumbered baskets 75-34.

    “If you’re a promoter, that won’t do,” Biasone said. “You’ve got to have offense, because offense excites people.”

    Something drastic was called for, and Biasone knew what it was. “We needed a time element in our game,” he said. “Other sports had limits — in baseball you get three outs to score, in football you must make 10 yards in four downs or you lose the ball. But in basketball, if you had the lead and a good ballhandler, you could play around all night.”

    Biasone’s idea was a shot clock, giving a team 24 seconds to attempt a shot or else lose possession of the ball. To deal with the matter of excessive fouling, the Board of Governors also adopted a rule limiting the number of fouls per team per quarter, with each foul became a shooting foul after the limit was reached. The two rules complemented each other perfectly.

    The 24-second shot clock made an immediate impact. In 1954-55, its first season, NBA teams averaged 93.1 points, an increase of 13.6 points over the previous season. The Boston Celtics became the first team in NBA history to average more than 100 points per game for a season, and three years later, every team did it.

    “Pro basketball would not have survived without a clock,” said Biasone.

    Others agreed. “The adoption of the clock was the most important event in the NBA,” said Maurice Podoloff, the NBA’s president, while longtime Celtics coach and executive Red Auerbach called it “the single most important rule change in the last 50 years.”

    The 24-second clock was the most dramatic change in a league where the rules are constantly undergoing fine-tuning, but only rarely seeing major changes. When the NBA’s predecessor, the Basketball Association of America, was formed in 1946, its founders adopted the college rules of the day, but changed the length of games from two 20-minute halves to four 12-minute quarters in order to give the fans more for their money. Two months into the inaugural season, the league made another change, banning zone defenses. Prohibitions against what are now termed “illegal defenses” have been on the books ever since.

    Most of the game’s dimensions have remained the same — the height of the basket is 10 feet, the foul line is 15 feet away from the backboard, the rim is 18 inches in diameter, the ball exactly half that. Courts differed slightly in size in the league’s early years as teams played in whatever buildings were available; in today’s modern arenas, every court measures 50 x 94 feet.

    The supreme skills of two of the NBA’s greatest big men did force changes in the dimensions of the foul lane. The width of the lane was doubled from six to 12 feet in 1951 in an effort to limit the dominance of George Mikan; more than a decade later it was further widened to 16 feet in an attempt to contain Wilt Chamberlain. Both players proved skillful enough to adapt their games to the changes, and they continued to be dominant forces in their eras.